I recently watched the much-beloved film noir Laura and didn’t wind up feeling much affection for it, but still respect it as a polished and sophisticated movie with a unique combination of various elements. The plot alone is genius: advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) is found murdered, only to seemingly reappear in her apartment while Detective Lt. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), having begun to fall in love with her while investigating her death, sleeps beneath her portrait on the wall. She’s now one of the suspects, whose number also includes ascetic radio commentator and journalist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), Laura’s wealthy aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), and Laura’s fiance, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price).
Tierney was stunningly beautiful, but didn’t always deliver strong performances. It doesn’t help that Laura is meant to be more of a mystery than a person, or that Tierney appeared in the film strictly under contract obligations. Perhaps a different actress could have built a stronger character out of the script, but Laura stays a cipher here. However, every other actor in this small cast brings something distinctive to their role. Andrews has a troubled quality that befits a noir hero, and Webb is so perfect as the cynical, witty Lydecker that he would become somewhat typecast in other films. Price is just right as a lunk-headed playboy, while Anderson, an extremely capable actor, brings out every possible nuance in Treadwell.
The least convincing aspect of the movie is, for me, McPherson falling for Laura. It’s not that I don’t believe he would, but there’s simply little screentime devoted to showing what he’s feeling about her. Most of the first half of the movie focuses, through flashbacks, on all the other characters rather than the detective himself, or how he’s responding to what he’s learning about Laura. The only scene that really shows that he’s taking a personal interest in her, in which he explores her apartment, comes just before she reappears. The scene was nearly cut from the the movie, and its absence would truly hurt the characters. As it is, McPherson’s affections don’t quite seem strong enough, but Andrews does sell them in the detective’s interactions with Laura.
Some would call Laura a perfect film. Personally, I’m more drawn to a classic that’s a bit rougher and stranger, like Gilda. Nonetheless, Laura is undoubtedly an essential film noir, consumately made, with some talented actors, and a plot that’s great fodder for the imagination and a pleasure to watch unfold onscreen.